I am currently learning Russian and during our lower-intermediate class, we are regularly asked to translate short passages into English. Since the aim of this exercise is purely to check that we have understood the Russian, our translations tend to be very literal. While it will be a long time (if ever) before I translate Russian professionally I find myself wondering if such exercises make us pick up bad habits which probably do not matter when you are learning the basics of another language, but actually hinder our ability to achieve fluency.
Like many language learners, my first experience of translation was at school where sample French sentences were drilled until we learnt them off by heart along with their English translation. However, we were never taught how to use these sentences to create coherent texts. As a result, we translated word for word or, at best, phrase for phrase. By the time I got to university this manner of translating texts literally was stuck in my mind and I had to un-learn it. It was during my undergraduate degree that I first started learning how to translate context and meaning rather than the words themselves but by then I had been studying French for eight years.
A similar issue is the use of reverse translation: translation from your native language into your foreign language as a language learning exercise. Again, I was required to do this at university and many of my fellow students could not understand why, since we would never translate into our foreign language in a professional capacity. However, I found such exercises beneficial because they gave me a greater understanding of how my foreign languages are structured and how they differed from English.
Let me know what you think.